Every year I’ve managed to make it to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, I’ve gone as a pirate. Pirates aren’t exactly period accurate, but the crowd seems to be fond enough of swashbuckling that an entire weekend (or at least half of one) has been devoted to the costume. And really, who doesn’t want an excuse to dress like a pirate while also checking out other pirates?
If you have celiac disease like I do, even a small amount of gluten (for me it’s only 7ppm—yes, that’s parts per million) can be the difference between a good time and something really awful like cardiomyopathy. This means that even something as simple as cross-contamination can be an instant recipe for illness. Fun fact: it takes on average about two years for the small intestine to recover after an exposure, though it’s not uncommon for injury to still be present even after five years*. That means even in a good scenario the recovery is still protracted. Having an almost ubiquitous food ingredient be so poisonous creates a lot of anxiety around eating out.
While “gluten-free” options are becoming a marketing tool, lots of people in the food industry don’t understand serious medical conditions like celiac disease. As a result, lots of places that advertise being gluten free aren’t. My aim, this trip, was to find out what was safe for celiacs like myself.
After you make it through the long lines to get in, you can pick up a program, which lists all the events, all the food stands, and everything that’s at the festival. There is a map with a key that tells you where everything is and what’s gluten free. Some places have a few options, while some places have everything sans gluten. I only went to the latter, and because I have problems with lots of other kinds of food (not just gluten), the items I chose are much more restrictive. I’d still encourage attendees to ask about the ingredients and handling if they’re uncertain or have other food issues.
As soon as I made it inside the gate, I decided to get beef jerky. A decent-sized chunk will set you back $4.75 (or, if you’re like me and are so hungry you forget to go to the ATM, the vendor might have mercy on you and give it away for the $4 you have in your pirate fanny pack). I ate half of it before I even thought to have a picture taken. The jerky has a lot of flavor, but the retained moisture makes it rather chewy and it can prove to be a decent jaw workout for the uninitiated.
The stand also offers turkey jerky, but I decided to get my turkey from another stand in the form of a leg, which was moist, tender, and huge—I could only eat half, and gave the rest to a friend. At $8, it’s definitely a meal’s worth of protein.
After eating, I unintentionally made this adventure paleo and got some mead. I had the vendors mix the raspberry and Egyptian varieties. Only $6 will get you a cup which they will fill so full that you can’t pick it up without spilling. Make sure to grab napkins. I should also put an aside here that any of the food and drink workers will sing, make noise, or cheer in some way if you tip them.
Walking past the petting zoo, I decided I wanted to pet animals. Although the festival has a petting zoo every weekend, it also happened to be pet weekend, so lots of people brought their canine companions. I’ve never seen so many corgis in one place. Luckily, most people let me pet their dogs when I asked. Various pet products (including hilarious and cute pet costumes) were available for sale, and there were a variety of pet-centered events, most geared toward dogs. Some people brought their pets in costume, some people bought things to bring home to their pets, and some people let me take pictures of their gorgeous wolf hybrid.
For $1 you can hold a baby goat, and for $7 you can feed the lemurs. You can pet the kangaroos for free.
The entertainment was nonstop, there was plenty of swag to buy (like those metal elf ears I’m wearing in the goat picture), and there were lots of food options if you’re gluten free. As someone who can’t eat at most restaurants, it is a huge relief to know I can go and spend all day and don’t have to worry about packing a lunch.
It’s also of mention that the staff really impressed me this year. If you don’t have serious medical issues surrounding food, you’ve likely never experienced what some of us go through when we simply ask what’s on the menu. I can honestly say this was the first time I’ve been out where my questions were answered cheerfully and carefully with concern. It was really a delightful break from being treated curtly, covertly or ignorantly poisoned, or asked out of exasperation, “Why don’t you just eat at home?” I really enjoyed my time this year, and it was made so much better not having to act like the food police. If you were nervous about attending because you’ve got food problems like I do, please take note that nobody once even acted put upon by my barrage of questions about where the food came from, what’s in it, and where it’s processed. I was given detailed answers with smiles to everything I asked. I look forward to next year.